Prime-time message

September 03, 1992

Remember the unremorseful insolence of John Thanos as h received his second and third death sentences in June -- this time for the murder of two Middle River teen-agers? If those lives meant nothing to Thanos, people familiar with his story have suggested that he probably considers his own life worthless as well. Year after year, his hard-drinking, abusive father drilled in the lesson that Thanos wasn't worthy of respect or self-esteem.

This is not to excuse criminals for savage acts, but rather to point out the price society sometimes pays for child abuse. Certainly not every abused child turns into a hardened criminal. In fact, the greater wonder is the human resilience that allows many severely mistreated children to grow into successful adults.

But those children succeed despite the odds, while many other abused young people grow up to inflict their pain on others in one form or another. This weekend, prime-time television will spotlight child abuse in a program to be shown Friday night on PBS, CBS and NBC (pre-empted on WMAR by the Orioles) and re-broadcast Sunday night on ABC. Hosted by Oprah Winfrey, herself a survivor of childhood abuse, "Scared Silent" focuses on specific cases, pointing out that abuse takes different forms and pervades all economic and social classes.

"Scared Silent" will encourage abused children to break the silence and ask for help. It will urge abusers to do the same -- but that may be less successful, since child abuse is a criminal offense. Even so, there is a recognized pattern of abused children growing up to become abusers themselves. Once they cross the line from victim to perpetrator, they bear responsibility for inflicting pain. But the same resilience that allows people like Ms. Winfrey to survive and thrive can also make it possible for victims and perpetrators to break the vicious cycle of abuse.

"Scared Silent" will carry many messages, including the fact that abuse is more prevalent than we want to believe, that it leaves ugly scars and that abuse can take many forms. But none is more important than the message that there is hope for the abused and abusers alike -- that the cycle can be broken. Unless that hope comes through loud and clear, and unless resources are available for people who need them, "Scared Silent" will miss a prime-time opportunity.

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